- Human Geography and Post-Crisis Agricultural Policy:Insights from the Venezuelan Andes
Venezuela is in shambles. blocked exchange with the U.S. dollar and falling crude oil prices have resulted in a rapidly shrinking economy. Essential goods are increasingly unattainable for most citizens, and food scarcity and malnourishment are common. According to the survey on living conditions published yearly by a consortium of Venezuelan universities, Venezuelans report having lost an average of eleven kilograms in 2017, 80 percent of households surveyed were food insecure, and more than 60 percent of the population lived in extreme poverty (ENCOVI, 2017). Political and social turmoil has engulfed the country since late President Hugo Chavez's health decline in 2012 and ultimate death in 2013. This has only increased since mid-2017, when the installation of a Constituent Assembly by President Nicolás Maduro nullified the role of the National Assembly, leading to a constitutional crisis and the existence of two concurrent governments: Maduro's socialist dictatorship (which remains in power and still controls the military) and National Assembly President Juan Guaido's interim government (which has been recognized by numerous foreign countries). Those who can, especially young people, have left the country; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that three million Venezuelans, migrants, and refugees have fled as a result of the ongoing crisis (UNHCR, 2018).
Those who cannot migrate but who do have access to land have turned to farming, as happened in Cuba in the 1990s (Altieri et al., 1999). This measure is necessary in a context of continuous food shortages and seemingly interminable lines to access limited government-subsidized food. Yet Venezuela's agricultural sector has been suffering from at least a century of negligence. Following failed land reforms at the beginning of the 1900s, which did not effectively redistribute land that was mostly controlled by caudillos, the upsurge in revenues from the vast oil reserves in 1960s and 1970s was the final straw for Venezuelan agriculture (Wilpert, 2006). [End Page 152] Agricultural land was abandoned as people migrated to the cities. In the early 2000s, Chavez's government launched an effort to reverse this trend and, as part of the Bolivarian political project of returning power to the people and combating foreign businesses, it nationalized big agribusiness (Schiavoni & Camaro, 2009). Principles of food sovereignty, agro-ecology, and land use over ownership guided a long overdue agrarian reform. Ultimately, however, this reform failed due to lack of infrastructure, an underdeveloped market, and lack of long-term vision (Enriquez, 2013; Wilpert, 2006). Because food insecurity haunts Venezuelans every day, reverting or turning to agriculture, even in small urban lots, has become a necessity for many (see also Altieri et al., 1999). Old and new farmers are extending cultivated areas and intensifying production while struggling to increase yields due to the high cost of agricultural inputs, including seeds and fertilizers.
As geographers, it is challenging to examine this phenomenon from a distance. From the outside, our governments and universities advise us to avoid, or even prohibit us from traveling to Venezuela for fieldwork. From the inside, many Venezuelan academics have left the country, and those who remain are struggling to get by on a salary that is the equivalent of approximately US$6 per month (Reuters, 2019). Yet, these should not be reasons for us to turn our attention away from the country. Rather, we should redouble our focus on the only sector of the economy that effectively allows people to get by on a daily basis: agriculture.
Social unrest and food shortages demand that we pay closer attention to agricultural waterscapes and their changing importance among Venezuelans in this time of crisis. Focusing on irrigated agriculture in Venezuela is relevant because we do not know how the ongoing economic crisis affects social adaptation to environmental change in the Venezuelan Andes. Studies tend to focus on the science of climate change in the Andes (e.g. Vuille et al., 2008) and rarely engage with questions around the social consequences of what a change in the climate means for communities' livelihoods and institutions (cf. Valdivia et al., 2010), particularly in moments of profound economic crisis and...